Client Non-Solicitation Agreements for Hair Salons, Med Spas, and Others in the Beauty Industry: Writing and Enforcing Them (Part I)

GreenTangerineMayKeratineventpageimgLast week, a famous New York tattoo artist, who’s tattooed the likes of Rhianna, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber, filed a lawsuit against a former staffer, claiming she began stealing his prospects while working at his iconic NYC tattoo parlor “Bang Bang.” The owner claims he fired her after “she’d begun secretly cancelling customer’s appointments and referring them to another unspecified studio, where she’d covertly begun working.” The owner is seeking $153,859 in damages, which given that a single sleeve tattoo at his shop can cost $20,000, is really not a big sum.  

The defendant, who herself is a well-known tattoo artist with more than 600,000 followers on Instagram, said she left Bang Bang because she disagreed with the owner “about the path [her] career should take.” 

The disputes over client poaching between business owners in the beauty industry (med spas, massage salons, hair salons, tattoo parlors, etc.) and their employees are very common.  Most of the time, they do not escalate to the lawsuit level because of one of the three reasons: (1) a business owner does not know the departed employee poached clients; (2) a business owner cannot prove that the departed employee poached clients; or (3) the former employee’s poaching of a few clients is just not worth the cost of litigation. 

The salon owners often feel that their employees benefit from being associated with the salon’s name and brand as well as the marketing campaigns that such salons often implement to attract new customers.  The owners also often train employees either personally or by sending them to various classes. The employees, however, often feel that their clients keep coming back to their salons because of their skills; not because of the brand behind them.  Both are usually right to a degree. In the beginning, a salon’s reputation and marketing can help a fledgling professional get access to a customer base, which they would never be able to reach otherwise. As an employee matures professionally and builds customer relationships, his or her clients are more likely to come back because of that employee’s particular skills rather than the salon brand. 

When an employment relationship terminates between a salon and its employees, a good non-solicitation and confidentiality agreement, combined with other key provisions, and smart business practices, can deter client poaching and preserve the relationship between the salon and its clients even in the face of its employees’ departure.  Some of the contractual provisions that can deter client poaching include the following:

Confidentiality – a strict confidentiality clause that explains to salon employees that certain information about clients is considered confidential and cannot be disclosed or used by the employees for their own benefit and/or after they leave. 

Social Media Ownership – many salons in the beauty industry now use Instagram as ways to market their services and often include the “before” and “after” photos of their clients. An employee agreement should specify who owns such images and what happens to them if the employee who performed the work and/or posted the images, leaves. 

Non-Competition – a classic non-competition clause will prohibit a former employee from working for a competitor within a certain geographic area of the salon. This area should be “reasonable” in light of the salon’s geographic reach and its clientele, and the role of the employee at the salon. 

Non-Solicitation – in addition, or instead of, a non-competition clause, salons should also have an agreement that prohibits employees from soliciting their former clients for a certain period of time after they leave. It may also need to address the social media “indirect solicitation” by former employees.  See my prior post here

Repayment of Training Costs – such provision in a contract allows a salon that provides a lot of training to its new hires to recover the training costs if an employee leaves before working for the salon for a certain period of time. 

Buy-Out Agreement – a salon can always include a buy out clause in the employment agreement, which will allow an employee to buy their non-compete and non-solicitation restraints if they wish to leave and continue to work in the area close to the salon or service their former clients. 

They key to drafting the above provisions is to make sure that they are reasonable, not overbroad, and clear to employees. 

In Part II, I will address what salons can do when they find out that a former employees has poached or is attempting to poach clients. 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice.  Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

 

Texas Introduces 3 Bills To Curb Application of Anti-Slapp Statute in Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Litigation

The Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), enacted by the legislature in 2011, has been wrecking havoc in business and employment disputes due to the statute’s overbroad language, confusing and conflicting interpretation by the various courts of appeals and federal courts, and defendants’ persistence in invoking the statute’s dismissal process in trade secrets and non-compete lawsuits. 

In late 2018 and early 2019, at least two Texas Courts of Appeals issued scathing opinions criticizing the statute’s dismissal mechanism being used by defendants in the run-of-the-mill trade secrets and non-compete disputes.  It appears that the legislature heard the complaints from the bench and the business community, which is why in the past week, we have seen three new bills that seek to exempt trade secrets and non-compete disputes from the grasp of the TCPA.  

HB 3547  introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D) on March 6, 2019:

SECTION 1. Sections 27.001(2) and (6), Civil Practice and Remedies Code, are amended to read as follows: 

(2) “Exercise of the right of association” means a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.  The term does not include a communication that is the basis of a claim asserting a misappropriation of a trade secret or a breach of a covenant not to compete.

SB 2162 introduced by Sen. Angela Paxton (R) on March 8, 2019 and HB2730 introduced by Rep. Jeff Leach (R) seek to amend the TCPA as follows: 

SECTION 8. Section 27.010, Civil Practice and Remedies Code, is amended to read as follows:

Sec. 27.010. EXEMPTIONS. [(a)] This chapter does not apply to:  …

(7) a legal action to enforce:
(A) a noncompete agreement;
(B) a nondisclosure agreement; or
(C) a non-disparagement agreement.

The bills contain many other amendments to the statute that are unrelated to trade secrets and non-compete litigation and they face tremendous opposition from the press. For example, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued a press release stating its concern that “HB 2730 and SB 2162  would, if enacted, significantly undermine key parts of TCPA and, therefore, speech protections in Texas.”  Therefore, their passage remains an open question. 

We will continue to monitor their progress through the legislature and will provide an update if they pass. 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice.  Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

What Employers Need to Know About Non-Compete Agreements in Texas (Part I)

imagesIn Texas, non-compete agreements are generally enforceable if they meet certain requirements. Specifically, they must be: (1) part of an otherwise enforceable agreement, (2) reasonable, and (3) not greater than is necessary to protect a legitimate business interest. 

Part of an Otherwise Enforceable Agreement

This simply means that a stand-alone non-competition agreement is not enforceable in Texas.  Instead, a promise not to compete with an employer must be part of another valid agreement. Most of the time, non-compete clauses are included in employment agreements, but they can also be used in confidentiality or restricted stock units (RSU) award agreements. 

Reasonable

Non-competition agreements in Texas must be reasonable as to the geographic area, duration, and scope of activity restricted. In court, employers have the burden of explaining why certain restrictions are reasonable, so they should be prepared to explain why the restrictions included in their non-compete agreements are reasonable for their industry, their business, and with respect to a particular employee against whom they seek to enforce the agreement. Not surprisingly, the reasonableness of the restrictions is one of the most hotly litigated issues in non-compete lawsuits and its resolution often depends on the industry, the type of the business involved, the duties of the employee, and several other factors.

Typically, geographic restrictions should be limited to the geographic area where the employee worked.  However, a larger restriction may be permissible in certain situations where the employee’s duties justify it.

As a general rule, two- to five-year duration is considered a reasonable non-compete term in an employment relationship (the rules are different for non-compete agreements related to a sale of business).

Finally, the scope of restricted activity must be reasonable in that an employee who goes to a competitor to work in a different capacity from what he or she did at the former company, should be able to do so.  Thus, the restraints should be related to the employee’s duties at his or her current place of employment.

Related to Legitimate Business Interest

Since Texas law places the burden on employers to show that their employment non-compete agreements are enforceable, employers must be able to explain why and how the restraints are related to their business interest. If the only explanation for a non-competition clause is that the employer wants to prevent competition from a former employee for a certain time period, such a “naked restraint” without business justification will not hold up in court.

Non-Ambiguous 

Non-compete agreements should be clear as to what they prohibit, when they end, and what territory they cover. If the language of the agreement can be subject to several interpretations, does not make sense, or is not clear as to the precise restraint parameters, an employer may have a hard time enforcing it in court.  Indeed, some courts refuse to order employees not to violate their noncompete agreements where the terms are not clear (an injunction order).  This is why a hastily written non-competition agreement, or one that is not well thought-through, may not be effective when the time comes to enforce it. 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice.  Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

 

Brace Yourself, Resignations Are Coming. Is Your Company Ready?

resignationAnyone who has been running a business for a while knows that January is a high turnover month for employees. And while companies cannot prevent employee turnover, they can take four steps this month to prevent employees from walking out the door with confidential documents and company trade secrets. 

1. Make Sure Key Employees Have Valid Non-Competition, Non-Solicitation and Confidentiality Agreements in Their Files. 

Conduct an audit of your employees files to make sure that: (1) all key executives, employees with access to confidential databases or documents, and sales people have signed non-competition, non-solicitation and confidentiality agreements in their files; (2) such agreements meet the requirements of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act; (3) the agreements are signed by a company representative; and (4) the company has an electronic version of the agreements so that if the hard copy gets lots, there is a back up.

2. Conduct Confidentiality Training. 

Set aside an hour or two to talk to employees about the importance of maintaining confidentiality of certain company information, go over the confidentiality policy, and answer any questions employees may have.  This way, if they leave, the policy will be fresh in thier minds and they will be more cautious in what they can and cannot share with their new employers. 

3. Verify That Company’s Document Management Systems and Databases Have Security Features Turned On. 

Task your IT person or department to look into what ERP, CRM, and document management systems the company is using and make sure all the security setting are turned on.  Such settings often include the following: (1) alerts when a large amount of data is downloaded; (2) restrictions on what can be printed or downloaded; (3) access restrictions for different employees within the system based on the need-to-know basis; (4)  back up features that allow the company to restore any emails or documents deleted by employees; (5) alerts when information is shared by employees outside the authorized company systems, and many others. 

4. Remind Employees During the Exit Process of Their Continuing Obligations to the Company.

Finally, when you do get a resignation notice, as soon as possible, meet with the employee to remind him or her about any non-competition, non-solicitation and non-disclosure requirements in their employment agreement and make sure the employee returns all of the company equipment and documents prior to leaving the company.  If you find out or suspect that the resigning employee might be going to a competitor, preserve their email accounts and devices issued by the company while you analyze whether their move may violate their restrictive covenants. 

Texas Bar Association Top Ten Legal Blogs in TexasAt Lewis Brisbois, we help companies design proper confidentiality procedures and policies, draft enforceable non-competition, non-solicitation and non-disclosure agreements, conduct confidentiality training with employees, and if trade secrets theft is suspected, help investigate it and prosecute it in courts around the country. 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice.  Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

 

The Rise in Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants Litigation – Live Presentation

screenshot_20190107-093330_instagram-01I will be presenting with Stanley Santire of Santire Law Firm on the The Rise in Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants Litigation on January 17th at 2:30 p.m. at the Texas Bar Advanced Employment Law Course in Dallas, Texas.  You can get a copy of our paper by registering to attend the event (registration link here).

This is a fantastic course for employment lawyers in Texas, which offers 15 hours of CLE credit over two days.

Additional presentations will include:

  • State Law Update
  • Anti-Slapp Update
  • Conducting Effective Investigations
  • What Is it Worth? How We Value Employment Cases 
  • Proving Up Attorney’s Fees
  • Structuring Settlement Agreements
  • Practical Applications and Q&A
  • Best Practices in Summary Judgment
  • Defining Harassment: Has it Really Changed in the #metoo Era
  • Effective Training: You Need More Than a Video
  • The Evolving Landscape of LGBTQ Protections
  • FMLA and FLSA Updates 
  • Social Media Evidence and Ethics 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice.  Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

A Broken Promise of Whoppers “For Life”: Why the Oregon Man’s Lawsuit Against Burger King Is Going Nowhere

A man wants free whoppers for life after getting locked in a Burger King bathroom and he has filed a lawsuit to get them. He claims that a local manager promised to provide him free hamburgers to compensate for a traumatic experience of being stuck in a bathroom for “well over an hour,” but the regional manager reneged the offer after the man began frequenting the location on the daily basis.

Mr. Brooner wants the court to force Burger King to keep providing him with one free whopper a week for the next 22 years (his projected life expectancy until he is 72) or, alternatively, award him close to $10,000 in damages, which is the price equivalent of the 22-years’ worth of weekly whoppers.

Normally, I would read something like this chuckle and move on, but this particular scenario raised many of the same questions that I get from my clients in some of the most complicated contractual disputes, so I thought I’d address some of them here:

Since the promise to provide burgers “for life” is not in writing, is it even enforceable?*

Probably yes. Certain contracts are enforceable even if they are not in writing. Typically, contracts that can be performed within one year are enforceable even if they are not in writing. Since Mr. Brooner’s life could end at any time, including within 12 months from the promise made by the manager, the contract to provide burgers “for life” could terminate within 12 months.  Thus, an oral contract to provide burgers “for life” is probably enforceable.

Can Burger King be responsible for a promise made by an employee without authority to make such a promise?

Probably not.  An employee of a company can bind the company only if a “reasonable” third party would understand that the employee had the authority to act the way s/he did on behalf of the company.  It is unlikely that a “reasonable” person would believe that a manager of a fast food restaurant had the authority to offer free burgers “for life” to a customer on behalf of the company. While in this case it appears to be a clear-cut issue that is likely to cost Mr. Brooner his claim, an agent’s authority to enter into contracts on behalf of his or her employer is often a hotly-litigated issue in contractual disputes.

What if the manager did not mean to offer burgers “for life” but said something like “any time you come in, the burgers are on us”? 

This is a tough one. For a valid contract to exist, there must be “a  meeting  of the minds,” i.e., both people should be on the same page as to what the terms of the agreement are.  As you can imagine, countless lawsuits arise out of the parties disagreeing over what the contract is  supposed  to  accomplish.  In such situations, a court will  typically  look  at  the words  of  the  contract, first, to determine the meaning.  If  those  are  ambiguous,  then the court will  take  in  evidence  from  both  parties  to  determine  their  intent in entering into the agreement.  Here, if the court determines that the manager’s promise was ambiguous, the  testimony  of  the  manager  about  what  he intended to offer to Brooner will be key.

Since Brooner did not promise anything in return for getting free whoppers, there was no valid contract, right?

Not really. There is an argument here that Brooner gave up his right to sue the restaurant or leave  negative  comments about  it  on  social  media  in  exchange  for getting free whoppers, as giving up a right to do so something in exchange for money or  other  consideration  can  create  a  contract.  Indeed,  employees  constantly  give  up  their  right  to  sue  the  employer  in  exchange  for  a  severance payment.

Can Brooner really get  the  damages  he  wants  on  the  assumption  that  he  will live 22 more years?

Probably not.  Generally speaking, a person seeking contract damages, must prove them with “reasonable certainty.”  In a complicated contractual dispute, expert witnesses would testify about what is reasonably certain.  In this case, Mr. Brooner’s health condition, average life expectancy, his lifestyle, how long this particular location of Burger King is expected to remain open, and many other factors can play a role in whether he can establish that he is reasonably certain to take advantage of free burgers for the next 22 years.

And there you have it.  Next time you get locked in a bathroom of a restaurant, get an executive level person on the phone to authorize a life-time supply of meals, or better, call me to negotiate and paper the deal for you.

*This is a discussion of general legal principles and not a legal advice, as each state has  somewhat different contract laws and exceptions and each contractual dispute involves its own set of facts that may affect claims and defenses available to the parties involved in such a dispute. 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

Top 5 Non-Compete Cases in Texas in 2018

Top5Unlike many other states around the country, Texas did not see any drastic changes in its non-competition laws in 2018.  However, out of a 100 + cases involving non-competition disputes, the following handful stand out: 

  1. Thoroughbred Ventures, LLC v. Disman, Civil Action No. 4:18-CV-00318, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133697, at *10 (E.D. Tex. 2018).*

HeldA non-disclosure agreement that prohibits employees from using, in competition with the former employer, the general knowledge, skill, and experience acquired in former employment is similar to a non-compete clause and must meet the requirements of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act. 

Why it made the top five list: This is the first case in Texas to hold that certain non-disclosure clauses may have to meet the same requirements as non-competition agreements.  

Quote: “An agreement prohibiting a former employee in this field from disclosing his acquaintances would therefore be a non-competition agreement in disguise, and would be unenforceable as such. Some of the other categories of confidential information-for example, financial information-might present different problems, but the present motion does not accuse the Former Employees of disclosing anything other than information related to Clients and Contractors.’”

2. Fomine v. Barrett, No. 01-17-00401-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 10024, at *8 (App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 6, 2018)

Held:  A non-competition clause that covers a geographic area where an employer plans to extend its business in the future, without any concrete plans to do so (i.e. just the owner saying s/he is going to expand), is geographically overbroad.

Why it made the top five list: Employers will often include in their non-competition agreements areas of future business expansion.  This case demonstrates that unless the plans for future expansion are definite,  the employers should stick with the area where the business currently operates or where its employees currently work. 

3. Ortega v. Abel, No. 01-16-00415-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 6690, at *11 (App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Aug. 23, 2018).

Held: The right of first refusal in the asset purchase agreement, which prohibited a party from operating a business without first offering another party the right to be a partner in the business was a “restraint of trade,” subject to the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act. 

Why it made the top five list:  This case demonstrates that Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act applies to any restraint of trade, not just the plain vanilla non-competition and non-solicitation agreements in the employment or sale of business context. 

4. Accruent, LLC v. Short, No. 1:17-CV-858-RP, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1441, at *12 (W.D. Tex. 2018).

Held: A non-competition clause that prohibits employees from competing with their employer anywhere where the employer does business (as opposed to where the employees worked) can be enforceable against those employees who had extensive access to the company’s confidential information.

Why it made the top five list:  Generally speaking, an employer can only prohibit an employee from competing in the area where the employee worked. However, this case creates an exception to the rule where employees have extensive access to and “intimate knowledge” of highly confidential information of their employer. 

Quote: “Because Short was Lucernex’s senior solution engineer, he now has an “intimate knowledge of all Lucernex product functionality.” Short knows about Lucernex’s unreleased software and its roadmap for future product development. He knows the product functionalities requested by Lucernex customers. He knows Lucernex’s business development plans, its market research, its sales goals, and its marketing strategy. . . Given everything Short knows about Lucernex and its products, customers, and prospects, Short can help a competitor take business from Accruent in any state or country where Lucernex did business. It is therefore reasonable for the noncompete provision to extend to every state or country in which Lucernex did business.”

5. D’Onofrio v. Vacation Publ’ns, Inc., 888 F.3d 197, 212 (5th Cir. 2018)

Held: A non-competition clause that prohibits an employee from working for competitors of the former employer “in any capacity,” without geographic or client-based boundaries, is unenforceable. 

Why it made the top five list:  The Fifth Circuit confirmed, yet again, that an industry-wide restraint on a departing employee, which is not limited to a certain geographic area or the clients that the employee dealt with, is unenforceable under the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act.     

*Keep in mind that any decisions mentioned in this post may be appealed and their holdings may be overruled.  Therefore, employers should always consult with a qualified employment lawyer to determine the current status of the law applicable to their particular dispute.

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

Three Key Factors in Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements

What distinguishes those companies that are successful in enforcing their non-compete agreements from those that are not?  Generally speaking, just three “no-brainer” factors:

1. They have good agreements.  A non-compete enforcement lawsuit is a breach of contract case.  Thus, those companies that have good agreements – the ones that set out reasonable restrictions, are clear and unambiguous, are signed by all the necessary parties, and are supported by proper consideration – have an advantage in court.  

The courts around the country scrutinize the language of non-compete agreements before deciding whether to restrict employees’ activities based on that language.  The more vague, incomprehensible, unreasonable the restraints in the agreements are, the less the likely the courts are to order employees to comply with them. 

2. They have evidence of violations.  Suspicions, rumors, or fear that an employee might be violating a non-compete agreement are not enough to support an injunction in court.  Those companies that are successful in enforcing their non-compete agreements usually come to court with some evidence that an employee either has already violated the agreement or intends to imminently do so.  The evidence does not have to be direct, i.e., employee admitting to someone that they are violating the agreement, and it may be circumstantial, but an application to enforce  an agreement must be supported by some evidence and not just a fear or speculation.

3. They move quickly.  Those companies that are successful in enforcing their non-compete agreements do not wait around to see how far an employee will go or what s/he employee might do.  Once they have evidence of a violation, they file a lawsuit within days of obtaining such evidence.  A swift action impresses upon a judge that the business is going to suffer irreparable harm unless the court steps in and enters an order preventing an employee from violating his or her non-compete agreement.

Keep in mind that all is not lost for those companies that do not have signed non-compete agreements with their employees as employees have certain duties to their employers even in the absence of an employment contract restricting their post-employment activities. 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

The Fifth Circuit Issues Its First Decision on the Defend Trade Secrets Act

trade secrets label on folder

Two and a half years after the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) became effective, the Fifth Circuit has issued its first opinion addressing the statute.  Earlier this month, the Court ruled that: (1) a party must “prevail” before it can recover any attorney’s fees under the DTSA and (2) a plaintiff’s dismissal of its claims without prejudice does not confer the “prevailing party” status on defendants. 

Dunster Live, LLC v. Lonestar Logos Management Company, LLC involved a situation where the plaintiff, Dunster, having lost an injunction hearing in a trade secrets case in federal court, wanted to dismiss the case without prejudice and refile it in a state court sans the DTSA claim.  Under 41(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, if a defendant has already answered the lawsuit or filed a motion for summary judgment, plaintiff is required to file a motion with the court asking for a permission to dismiss its claims without prejudice. The district court granted Dunster’s motion to dismiss, and the plaintiff proceeded to file an almost identical trade secrets lawsuit but without the DTSA claim in a state court.

After the dismissal, Lonestar sought to recover its attorney’s fees of over $600,000 on the basis that Dunster had brought its federal lawsuit in “bad faith.” The district court denied Lonestar’s request for attorney’s fees holding that a dismissal without prejudice of Dunster’s claims did not make Lonestar a “prevailing party” under the DTSA.

Lonestar furter argued that Dunster sought to evade paying attorneys fees by strategically seeking a dismissal without prejudice once it realized that its lawsuit was doomed, and that the DTSA’s “bad faith” provision supported a fee award even when a defendant had not officially prevailed.  The DTSA’s provision upon which Lonestar relied states the following:

[i]f a claim of the misappropriation is made in bad faith, which may be established by circumstantial evidence, a motion to terminate an injunction is made or opposed in bad faith, or the trade secret was willfully and maliciously misappropriated, [a court may] award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.  18 U.S.C. 1836(b)(3)(D).

The district court rejected this argument as well denying Lonestar’s request for attorney’s fees.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling finding that a dismissal without prejudice under the DTSA did not confer the status of a “prevailing party” on Lonestar, similar to other federal statutes that allow prevailing parties to recover attorney’s fees, such as the Equal Access to Justice Act, Patent Act, Civil Rights Act, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Court also rejected Lonestar’s argument that the DTSA only required a showing of “bad faith” by a plaintiff in filing a lawsuit and not a showing that a defendant was a “prevailing party.”  It explained that “[a]llowing bad faith alone to support a fee award would improperly read the concluding language of Section 1836(b)(3)(D) – ‘the prevailing party’ – out of the statute.”  Thus, a party seeking attorney’s fees under the DTSA must establish both: (1) that it is a prevailing party and (2) one of the three qualifying scenarios described in 1836(b)(3)(D).

TAKEAWAY:  With the DTSA becoming effective on May 11, 2016, plaintiffs in Texas now have a choice of whether to seek redress for trade secrets misappropriation in state courts or federal courts.  Dunster makes it clear that as long as plaintiff has brought its DTSA claim in good faith in federal court, it may have a chance to change the strategy down the road and explore its claims in state court without facing the penalty of having to pay defendant’s attorneys fees as the result of dismissing its federal lawsuit without prejudice.

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

Non-Compete Agreements: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in TexasLast week, a Texas Court of Appeals ruled that a non-compete agreement between a transportation logistics broker and its freight carrier was unreasonable because it was not clear when the 24-month non-compete period would begin to run. This case serves as a reminder that a confusing, ambiguous, or imprecise non-compete agreement will yield poor results in court.  In other words: garbage in, garbage out. 

The covenant not to compete at issue was meant to ensure that the freight carrier would not take away the broker’s clients after the broker had revealed their identity to the carrier.  Thus, there was a legitimate business reason for the non-compete agreement.  However, the following language in the agreement created a problem: 

For a period of twenty four (24) months following the Carrier’s last contact with any client or client[s] of Broker the Carrier agrees it shall not either directly or indirectly influence or attempt to influence customers or clients of Broker (or any of its present or future subsidiaries or affiliates) for whom the Carrier has rendered services pursuant to this Agreement to divert their business to the Carrier or any individual, partnership, firm, corporation or other entity then in competition or planning to be in competition in the future with the business of Broker or any subsidiary or affiliate of Broker. 

The Court explained that there were two problems with this language that made it impossible to determine how long the restrictive covenant was going to last.  First, under the terms of the covenant not to compete, the 24-month restraint period would start from the date of the carrier’s last contact with “any” client of the broker, not just the clients that the carrier had provided services to.  Since the broker testified that its client list was a trade secret, the carrier would have no way of determining the date of its last contact with the clients whose identity it had no way of knowing.  Second, the non-compete would begin to run from the date of the last contact, regardless of whether the contact took place during or after the broker-carrier agreement had terminated, which meant that it could begin at any time. 

Consequently, the Court ruled that a covenant not to compete that extended for an indeterminable amount of time was not reasonable, and as a result, was not enforceable. It reversed the jury’s finding that the agreement had been breached and took away the damages the jury had awarded to the broker.

Texas Bar Association Top TenBOTTOM LINE:  There are plenty of “sample” non-compete agreement “forms” online, but there is a difference between a non-compete clause and a non-compete clause that is enforceable. Unfortunately, many companies do not find that out until they are in court trying to enforce their agreements that may not be enforceable.  Companies should avoid using “standard” non-compete clauses and make sure that their restraints are tightly drafted to address their specific industry, business model, and particular needs. 

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.